Adopt-a-Salmon Turns Kids Into "Parents," Conservationists

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 16, 2004

Early this morning a group of eighth graders will gather at a New England riverbank to bid goodbye to some old friends.

In a scene with laughs, perhaps a few tears, and lots of high hopes, they will release young Atlantic salmon fry into the Souhegan River. The Amherst, New Hampshire, middle schoolers hope the salmon's journey will take the fish all the way to the sea—and back.

These are no ordinary salmon. The students raised them in their classrooms as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) program known as Adopt-a-Salmon Family.

The program, active since 1993, operates in some 75 schools in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. The yearlong program can be tailored for all grade levels and promotes a strong student-salmon bond, a bond that's evident when the fish are released.

"They name them and say prayers for them," said volunteer George May, a retired teacher in Nashua, New Hampshire, who helps coordinate the Adopt-a-Salmon Family program. "They cry, and some of the teachers even cry."

During the school year student "parents" learn all about the "king of fish," but salmon are only part of the program's larger scope.

"Over three to four months they develop an emotional bond with the fish, and we try to extend that to the river and to the whole watershed," said May, who also serves as president of the Souhegan Watershed Association.

"Over the years we've been able to reach so many kids, about not only salmon but about intact ecosystems," added Joe McKeon, manager of USFWS's Central New England Fisheries Office in Nashua. "They in turn bring the message to their families and other friends."

Christmas in March

The May-June releases are the culmination of a lengthy curriculum that begins in the fall—often with a trip to a Nashua hatchery to see biologist Doug Smithwood facilitate the spawning process and put the eggs into hatchery incubators until after the holidays. The eggs are from salmon that have successfully returned to the Merrimack River to spawn.

"They are very excited when we get the eggs at the end of January," said Dave Irving, a seventh-grade science teacher at Merrimack Valley Middle School in New Hampshire. "But then they are just these pink eggs that disappear into the gravel, so they kind of forget about them and [the eggs] become just a part of the classroom.

"When they hatch [as fry] around mid-March it's kind of like Christmas. All of sudden there are these little fish in the tank. The students get pretty possessive. They name them and swear that they can identify a specific fish from among 250," Irving said.

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